Resilience at Christmas: Living a fast paced life, for what?

by Lyn Worsley

(Clinical Psychologist)

Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Resilience Centre

Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Resilience Centre

It seems much more logical, doesn’t it, that in order to maximize our chances of finding happiness, we should try to do as much as we can, and experience as many things as possible. Got a half-hour to spare? Why not finish that report, make a few more appointments, or answer a couple of emails. Going on holiday? Let’s get a tourist guide to the city and see if we can visit every museum and gallery on the map, we don’t want to miss anything. So if we pack our lives full of activities, achieve everything on our bucket-list, we won’t waste a single, precious moment, and then we’re more likely to find happiness. Aren’t we?

It seems that we’re so focused on “doing” stuff (at work, at home, with the kids, with friends and so on) that we have little time to focus on just being, or living honestly and courageously in the moment.

So you’ll have spotted the paradox here: we keep busy because it leads to more experiences, and we think that more experiences is equivalent to more chances of being happy. But being busy reduces our chances of being happy because we reduce the amount of time we have to reflect and learn, to savour, appreciate, and be in the moment. In other words, we’re living inauthentic lives, which actually prevent us from being happy and enjoying the Christmas period.  

There is some interesting research about this. There was some research done which was based on holiday letters exchanged with friends and family at around Christmas time or the New Year, describing what has been going on over the past 12 months (DeGreeff, Burnett & Cooley, 2009).

What do we say in our holiday letters?

The researchers analyzed these holiday letters for signs of authenticity, for instance reflection on important life events such as births, marriages and deaths.

They came up with 3 different categories:

  1. Authentic,
  2. Inauthentic and
  3. In-between.

So in authentic letters, the letter-writers might talk about what happened during the year, and then discuss the impact on their lives, how it changed them, or how they have grown by the experience.

In an in-between letter, the letter-writers might acknowledge that events had meaning, but then fail to elaborate on what that meaning was.

In the inauthentic letters, the letter-writers might still mention the different life events, but in a more cursory way, for example presenting them in bullet points, like a shopping list, without any detail or explanation.

The stats were:

Authentic letters   32   5%
Inauthentic letters   495   83%

The vast majority was so distracted by the hectic details of daily life that they failed to show any awareness of ‘being’, a sign of authentic happiness in the view of the authors. So it looks as if we’re fooling ourselves into believing we need to do and achieve as much as possible. As a result we get so busy that we can’t appreciate the really important things in life.

So at the end of the article I was left wondering about a number of things:

  1. Can we assume that people are living inauthentic lives based on what they write in a holiday letter or anywhere else? Just because they don’t openly express the meaning and purpose they derive from certain life experiences doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate their true value, or aren’t changed by them in a meaningful way. Perhaps some people are incapable or unwilling to express their authentic selves in writing.
  2. Is there a trend in holiday letter writing, which some people find difficult to go against? For example, perhaps there is an expectation that holiday letters will be light-hearted, optimistic, and cheerful, not full of profound statements about finding the meaning in life.

On the other hand, perhaps if more people did reflect on life-changing experiences in their holiday letters, others might also be encouraged to do the same.

 So what can we learn about how to prepare for Christmas, that may reduce our stress?  

I found this paper raised some very important questions about authenticity, how we achieve it, and how we can act as role models for those around us whether are they friends, colleagues or our children. So when you sit down to write your holiday letter to your friends and family this Christmas, what are you going to write about?

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. (Winston Churchill)

I don’t think he was talking about presents, but rather what we give of ourselves. Our authenticity. The reflections on the year, the time to enjoy stopping and perhaps working out how fast we are going and how we may be able to slow down the pace is an opportunity to focus on what really matters in our lives.

This also gives meaning to the relationships we connect with at Christmas time. We know the reason we are in families, we see there is a greater meaning to the relationships, not the presents or the cooking, or the number of people but perhaps the odd and weird relatives, the strange neighbour in our unit block, the uncle that always drinks too much, the people who are actually family but are not related. They are all the reason for being here, for connecting in meaningful ways. Accepting each other, smiling at each other’s difference and not reacting by feeling we need to tell each other how busy we are!!!

It is about connecting again with people, which builds our resilience.

References:

DeGreeff, B.L., Burnett, A. & Cooley, D. (2009). Communicating and philosophizing about authenticity and unauthenticity in a fast-paced world. Journal of Happiness Studies.

Grenville-Cleve B (2012) Happiness, busyness and Holiday letters in Positive Psychology News Daily